To faire la bise is an act universally known as being classically French. An exchange of cheek kissing, it’s a traditional way of saying hello or goodbye to a person, and is used amongst family and friends, but also with colleagues, acquaintances and – sometimes awkwardly – between world leaders.
The most common form is to kiss someone twice, but in places within France, particularly areas in the north, it can be up to four times – which can be a bit too close for comfort for some foreigners – and that’s before we even start the debate of which cheek, right or left, comes first.
French language expert and founder of French Today, Camille Chevalier-Karfis, can help us out here, with a useful explanation of all things kissing related in France.
“La bise, I know it’s a weird gesture for foreigners … but the French do it, it’s an impulse,” says Camille, “you don’t second guess yourself, it’s a fluid gesture.”
In February 2020 – at the start of the pandemic in Europe – France’s health minister, Oliver Véran said: “From now on, we recommend people avoid shaking hands” added that la bise should also be stopped for now.
Various alternatives evolved – from elbow bumps to foot-touches and bowing – but now the question is being asked as to whether la bise should return at all, even if the health situation allows?
“Of course !” says Jaques Mercier, who lives in Paris’ 4th arrondissement.
“I’m 86 years old and I survived my entire life pre-Covid doing la bise!” he exclaims. “I live alone and haven’t been able to see friends much over the past year, so I will certainly be taking advantage of la bise when life becomes more normal.”
But James Preston, a 30-year-old British translator based in Paris thinks quite the opposite.
“I would hope la bise becomes extinct, firstly because of the fact we’re more aware now of potential perils of inadvertent saliva spraying,” he said. “And secondly, because it’s sexist. Male workmates more often shake hands but women are expected to kiss their male colleagues”.
In 2017, Aude Picard-Wolff, the Mayor of Morette – a small town in Eastern France – described the ritual as a waste of time and “unhygienic”, adding she believes it is a representation of “inequality between men and women”.
Marina Foustre-Pou, a thirty-two year old who lives in Paris, worked in Lyon before Covid-19.
“I was working in a bar for some time, which was fun. You meet lots of different people, but some individuals – especially after a drink – would use la bise as an excuse to get close to certain women working at the bar. It was uncomfortable.”
Ludivine Bertaux, an 18-year-old from Charleville-Mézières, doesn’t miss it.
“It’s true that la bise was normal before Covid-19, but since barrier gestures have appeared, and we no longer do it, I really don’t miss it. Kissing a stranger means having close contact with them, which I don’t really want to do when I don’t properly know them.”
Whilst some people feel the tradition is outdated, or at least needs reviewing, others believe la bise is a representation of friendship and closeness, a way of showing your respect and trust in another person.
“When I was younger, I would visit family in Burgundy. Over there, it’s four kisses on the cheek and I didn’t like it – I thought they were uneducated”, says Jonathan Maloine, a thirty-three year old from Paris.
“La bise was never really a thing when I was a teenager. At parties you’d do la bise with girls, but not yet boys” he explains. “A bit later on, you start to do la bise with male mates. It’s a sign of friendship and openness. It’s also a sign that shows you don’t conform to common ideas, and that you don’t mind kissing the cheek of another guy.”
“It represents togetherness, and that’s something we need after the past year,” states Anne-Marie DuBois, a 76-year-old from Paris. “It’s a beautiful tradition here in France, it shows we trust each other, it’ll never die out.”
Tom and Lynda, a couple originally from Wiltshire who now live in south west France, say la bise is one of the traditions that charmed them about France.
“In the UK, everyone’s so reserved and awkward with regards to greeting one another”, Lynda laughs, “but in France, people are a lot more open in that way – especially in the countryside. Everyone says ‘bonjour’ and doing la bise with strangers is normal.”
“I don’t think la bise will disappear amongst family and close friends”, says Sandra Michaut-Alchourron, a 29-year-old from Nantes.
“We’re so used to it, and a lot of people will miss it. But I think it will likely disappear amongst colleagues and strangers. Last week a colleague’s boyfriend – who I’d not met before – went to do la bise and I was so surprised. Young people aren’t that used to doing la bise with strangers anyway, but it felt particularly weird during Covid times!”
“La bise will endure with friends and family,” predicts Camille Chevalier-Karfis, “it’s deeply ingrained enough, but as you drop your kids off at elementary school, and all the kids come to kiss you, and the parents that are there kiss you as well – this is really not called for.
“Maybe [from now on], people will be able to voice their opinion and say ‘I’m very happy to meet you, but I’d rather not.”
In March last year former health minister Agnès Buzyn suggested a simple smile and wave would have to suffice from now on. Many complained this was barbaric, but it seems that at least some people agree with her.